Sacred mysteries: Vic in Catalonia was known as the City of the Saints because it produced saints at times that other Spanish towns did not
(By Christopher Howse/Telegraph) Three things immediately strike a visitor to the tiny cathedral city of Vic in Catalonia: the smell of pigs that hangs in the air, the lovely arcaded square surfaced with raked sand, and the fog that envelopes the place for 100 days a year. The last may bring out the richness of the first.
Fog was used by the writer Miquel Llor (1894-1966) as a metaphor for the closed, hypocritical society that he portrayed in his novel Laura a la ciutat dels sants – Laura in the City of Saints. I don’t recommend it, except as an indicator of the way things seemed to middle-aged intellectuals in 1931, the year that the Republic was declared in Spain.
Vic was known as the City of the Saints because it produced saints at times that other Spanish towns did not. To acquire a new saint it is necessary first to supply holy men and women as candidates, but then to have people determined to persevere with the slow process of canonisation.
Any city can scrape together a safely distant medieval saint such as Bernat Calbo, the bishop of Vic who died in 1243, but then there is the patron saint of Vic, Miquel dels Sants, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. (This version of his name is Catalan. Catalonia, now in a ferment of independence fever, puts all things such as place names and museum captions in Catalan, not Spanish.)
Vic today has a striking number of little niches at first-floor level (as pictured above), with statues of saints: the Virgin Mary, St Anthony of Padua or Sant Miquel himself. But these have an 18th or 19th century look. By 1931 it must have seemed that, despite a flourishing seminary, saintliness was a thing of the past. But sainthood was soon to be thrust upon some.
In the entrance of the little church of St Philip in Vic hang two portraits of recently beatified members of the Oratorian congregation (which runs this church): one is John Henry Newman, the other Salvi Huix, a chubby-faced man. He was a product of the esteemed seminary of Vic and was bishop of Lleida, quite a dull city inland. In 1936 he was murdered for being a bishop, which certainly counts as martyrdom. He was beatified last year by Pope Francis.
Vic seems to me moderately pious still. Catalan nationalism and Christianity are not opposed. On the contrary, ancient centres of devotion such as Montserrat have for centuries stood for a distinctively Catalan culture. And just at the moment the fog has lifted and the sun shines on Vic.